Rethinking Administration Facility Design

An integrated campus for the County of Orange creates a model for open, energy-efficient civic facilities benefiting the workforce and the community.

In an area once barren of meaningful community space and greenery, the newly opened $400 million County of Orange Administrative Civic Center complex reworks how the County interacts with the public, upgrades employee work environments and establishes a new urban center for downtown Santa Ana.

Two six-story, 250,000-square-foot office buildings bookend a 35,000-square-foot plaza that creates a welcoming central gathering space and a gracious entrance to the buildings. Landscaped promenades draw people into the plaza and provide a doorstep to a new retail-inspired “one-stop shop” public counter for 13 County departments and a jewel box–like new hearing room for the County Board of Supervisors (see sidebar).

The new Civic Center complex is at the heart of a 20-year master plan to reposition every aspect of the County of Orange’s downtown real estate. Its completion — on time and under budget — is a story of collaboration, long-term planning and an innovative process focused on delivering the County a new generation of efficient, adaptable and open facilities. Integral to achieving this goal was a public-private partnership (P3) with Griffin Structures as lead developer, LPA as the design partner and Swinerton Builders as the general contractor. At every step, LPA’s integrated design team of in-house engineers, landscape architects and interior designers were involved with the developer, construction team and County staff to address issues and develop solutions.

“In a P3 situation, an integrated team is the only way you can really deliver a project of this scale to the fullest potential,” says LPA President Dan Heinfeld. “The great thing about a P3 is the potential to do so much more with less, in terms of budget, energy performance and creating a better environment for the people.”

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Outdoor spaces for employees and visitors were programmed as part of the overall space requirements.

Reclaiming Value
All of this would have been inconceivable 15 years ago when the County was still recovering from a 1990s bankruptcy and languishing with a portfolio of undermaintained, obsolete buildings. Employees were scattered across a 17-acre campus, complicating access to public services.

The Civic Center’s planning and design process began with a comprehensive Facilities Strategic Plan (FSP), conducted by Griffin and LPA. The strategic plan evaluated the entirety of the County’s downtown Santa Ana portfolio and operations, including condition assessments of 22 occupied facilities, space utilization studies and energy-efficiency performance evaluations. Operating costs were exorbitant due to obsolete buildings and systems. The County occupied an average of 375 square feet per employee and was spending about $26 million a year in occupancy costs.

The approved plan divided the 20-year project into four phases to accommodate its considerable complexity. The County began by vacating leased space, freeing revenue for the P3 financing, while also cutting energy consumption and operating costs across their expansive real estate portfolio.

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The entry to the new board hearing room is open and transparent while providing a secure environment.

The study also examined functionality, creating new “neighborhoods,” grouping together related County functions such as administrative and judicial departments. The strategic plan process determined that five aging buildings could be demolished, and staff consolidated into the two new towers, County Administration South (CAS) and County Administration North (CAN).

The design of the two office towers was developed and refined closely with the County, after extensive engagement by LPA’s design team on how the County provided services, when peak service times occurred and the specific workflows and needs of each department.

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The project is a catalyst to improving pedestrian connections within the Civic Center.

Proactive Participation
As a project delivery system, the public-private partnership offered significant benefits to the County. The agreement included a guaranteed total project maximum price for the County, shifting risk to the developer to make budget and to deliver on time. The County will pay an annual lease on the buildings and then take full ownership after 30 years.

“P3s are the right approach when you’re looking for flexibility, efficiency and the ability to allow the private sector to do what they’re best at and allowing government to do what we’re responsible for,” says Frank Kim, County Executive Officer for the County of Orange.

Though provided by the private sector, all work on the project was competitively bid at prevailing wages. Every financial aspect of the project was shared in an “open book” subject to County audit — with all savings going back to the County. The process provided an added level of transparency, which was important for the County.

“The public-private partnership was particularly well-suited for the County at this juncture,” says Griffin Structures CEO Roger Torriero. “Engaging private sector expertise as a complement to public sector need was central to ensuring the County’s user groups were well-served and budgets and schedules were maintained.”

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The open space and landscape design is an abstraction of the five supervisor districts.

The P3’s guaranteed maximum price also changed the tenor of the design process. It incentivized the developer, architect, builder and County to collectively define design concepts and details before setting the final price. Unlike traditional delivery methods, all partners were engaged from the beginning, proactively solving problems to meet the client’s priorities as well as their financial goals.

“The P3 delivery method had a huge impact on our approach,” says LPA Director of Civic + Cultural Jeremy Hart.

“Because we started with all the players at the table, we were able to completely understand the financing and what it would cost before we dove deeply into design.”

This also enabled the team to engage early with key trade contractors, who provided input at every step of the BIM process, eliminating potential problems during construction in the field. Weekly meetings between the groups focused on issues and challenges as they arose, with the developer, designer and builder discussing everything with the County, from structural systems to steel packages.

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The inherent flexibility of the P3 enabled issues to be quickly and thoughtfully solved before they impacted budget or schedule. A case in point was how the collective team devised a new way of joining the columns of the towers to those of the parking structure beneath it, a frequent construction challenge. Working together, the architects, engineers and builder customized a coupling system. This cost-effective innovation simplified the construction process and has been adopted for subsequent projects.

“With a P3 project as complex as the County’s, partnering with a fully integrated firm such as LPA, which has every discipline and consultant under one roof, from structural engineers to furniture designers, is fundamental,” Torriero says. “We were able to engage with the County very early with a clearly established set of protocols and execute under those protocols, giving everyone assurance of budget and schedule compliance, which, to me, is the Holy Grail.”

Ultimately, the project returned $8 million in savings to the County and significantly reduced operating costs, while cutting fossil fuel use by 77% from the AIA 2030 Commitment baseline.

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An open and accessible government is expressed visually in the architecture and landscape design.

Doing More with Less
The County’s target for at least LEED Silver certification for the administration buildings helped establish baseline goals and validate an aggressive approach to lowering energy use. Instead of adding alternative energy systems, LPA focused on passive building strategies, including orientation, solar-shading devices, an efficient envelope and natural daylighting. Smaller windows and vertical sunshades control direct sunlight and glare on the east and west ends of the building, and horizontal sunshades and light shelves bounce daylight into the open office environment on the south side of the building. On the shadier north side, the façade is almost entirely glazed without sun-shading devices.

We were able to engage with the County very early with a clearly established set of protocols and execute under those protocols, giving everyone assurance of budget and schedule compliance, which, to me, is the Holy Grail.

“The buildings embody the concept of conservation, where every design feature works to conserve energy and deliver the greatest long-term value,” Heinfeld says. “It’s a simple but elegant approach to sustainability that isn’t utilized enough across the industry.”

For heating, cooling and electricity, the new buildings are connected to the County’s Central Utility Facility, which produces power less expensively than local providers and takes the project entirely off the grid. LPA’s civil engineers worked with the landscape architects to integrate the water management system into the overall design, looking for ways to conserve water and push systems underground. All stormwater is managed on-site through underground storage and filtration tanks.

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A conservative approach also guided material selection and use. “We utilized a lot of off-the-shelf products and modular systems that could be delivered very efficiently but also used for a high-end effect,” says LPA Project Architect Melody Tang.

Precast concrete was used to cost-effectively emulate the red sandstone of the nearby Old Orange County Courthouse to the east, which opened in 1901. The shading and vertical fins of the new buildings pay homage to the Richard Neutra–designed County Courthouse, built in 1968, to the west, which incorporated forward-thinking passive solar features long before they were popular.

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A retail-inspired one-stop-shop provides easy public access to 13 County departments.

A New Sense of Openness
In many ways, the design reflects the County’s desire to be more open and easily accessible to the public that they serve. Central to the process was a re-envisioning of how the County could connect with citizens and support its community of staff. The process included bringing the 13 departments together in interactive focus groups to build consensus on how they would — for the first time — share a single, customer-focused facility and operational platforms.

LPA designers stretched County officials to think differently about service delivery for their customers, balancing state-of-the-art technologies and retail trends with face-to-face interactions and a personal touch. The resulting one-stop counter concept provides a single place where residents can do everything from checking property records to paying taxes.

“This is the primary interface between the public and the County,” says Torriero. “It was really important that emphasis be given to this space, not only from a design and planning standpoint, but also in terms of managerial efficiencies and ease of service.”

Workplace design also became an integral part of the planning, as the County looked to provide work environments on par with the private sector. Natural light is maximized throughout the space, with workstations organized around the perimeter. The average space per employee was lowered from 375 square feet in the old buildings to 260 square feet per person, while collaborative spaces, meeting rooms and quiet zones were added.

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The public spaces break down the scale of the six-story administration buildings.

“I think new employees that come into the County are going to be wowed, and I think that’s going to enhance our retention,” Kim says. “And I think it also improves our recruitment.”

To enhance wellness, LPA’s multidisciplinary team placed an efficient HVAC loop within the core of the buildings, allowing for higher ceilings at the open office spaces. Rooftop air-handling units provide superior air filtration and modulate the outsideair ventilation rate for optimal indoor air quality.

“The interior and exterior designs work together to create uplifting, healthy workplace environments,” says LPA Workplace Design Director Rick D’Amato. “We designed each façade of the building differently to respond to solar orientation and manage glare and heat gain.”

The buildings embody the concept of conservation, where every design feature works to conserve energy and deliver the greatest long-term value. It’s a simple but elegant approach to sustainability that isn’t utilized enough across the industry.

Honoring Citizenship
A visit to the County of Orange offices today is a transformed experience. On any given day, the service center is a hub of activity, and County workers are eating lunch in the park. On meeting days for the Board of Supervisors, the public flows into the plaza and finds seats in the comfort of the hearing room, ready to participate in democracy. The County is in the process of building a streetcar stop that will connect the County complex to the rest of downtown Santa Ana, adding to the vibrant energy.

By consolidating the County’s services and freeing resources, the development has created new real estate assets for the County, allowing the County flexibility and options as they work to serve citizens. The project has set the stage for the County’s future development, re-creating the seat of government and building the heart of the County. This is the spot where the public and County representatives come together as one.

A Next-Generation Public Hearing Room

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The public hearing room provides an open and accessible environment for the public to address the Board of Supervisors.

The County of Orange’s goal to create a more open and transparent seat of government can be clearly seen in the new meeting room for the Board of Supervisors.

The transparent pavilion sits elegantly a few steps up from the plaza with a wide porticoed entrance greeting its users. Sheer curtain walls face the plaza, framing an expansive lobby space.

The 5,325-square-foot hearing room accommodates 300 people in one open, column-free space with clear sight lines that’s easily accessible from the plaza.

“All elements of the hearing room work together to create an extreme sense of focus, unity and respect on the inside,” says LPA Workplace Design Director Rick D’Amato “Two concentric rings of light at the ceiling illuminate the room, symbolically encircling the seating area and dais, and the floor slopes at an angle that ensures even the back row is at eye level to the dais.”

Technology is seamlessly integrated throughout the room. At the dais, all connections and built-in screens are recessed, eliminating laptop clutter. Here, the ADA podium easily rises and lowers and features flash drive access to the audiovisual system. The metal slats of the ceiling conceal ambient light as well as cameras and lighting for telecasting meetings to County citizens.

“This is where the public meets their representatives,” says LPA Director of Civic + Cultural Jeremy Hart. “It was important that new hearing represent their desire to create a more welcoming and accessible environment for their constituents.”

Q&A: Thomas “Mat” Miller, County of Orange Chief Real Estate Officer

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As the County of Orange’s Chief Real Estate Officer, Mat Miller is responsible for management of CEO Real Estate, which administers and transacts all County of Orange real estate matters, including acquisition, disposition, leasing, licensing and development of real estate interests.

What did you like about the development process for the new Civic Center complex?

The big thing was seeing things from an outsider’s perspective, bringing in Griffin and LPA and having them ask, why are these people where they are? What are the adjacencies? Why is the healthcare agency in this particular area? It was really about reimagining [County operations], and that facilitated the growth that we’re showing now.

How was the communication with the design team?

It really was an interactive process. Civic centers and public entities are very different [than the private sector]. Sometimes the structure’s the same as a corporation, but the things they do are different, and their goals are different. It was good to have a team that had that experience and could draw parallels in other areas and say, well, we did this here and we did this here.

They were able to take those previous experiences and turn them into these minute details that were very important. That really shaped the civic center for years to come.

What do you think about the final results?

This was a process that really achieved what we hoped it would. Fourteen years ago, if you had said, what ultimately would you like in your wildest dreams? I’m not sure it would be any different than the way it actually turned out.

What’s been the effect on the neighborhood?

It has really been revitalized in a way that I don’t think was intended. It has happened organically around the work that we’re doing here. It’s night and day. Being able to come here now and see it come to life is very rewarding.